Figurative Language in Sonnet 116

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  • 0:03 Don't Be So Literal
  • 1:36 First Quatrain
  • 2:24 Second Quatrain
  • 3:34 Sestet
  • 4:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

In 'Sonnet 116,' Shakespeare uses various styles of figurative language, including symbolism, metaphor, and personification, to describe love as something that is constant and unchanging.

Don't Be So Literal

During William Shakespeare's lifetime, the sonnet was one of the most popular poetic forms. A 14-line poem following a set rhyme scheme, sonnets were all the rage in the 16th century, and almost all of the great writers tried their hand at the form. Shakespeare was one of many.

So, why the sonnet craze? It is a limited form with specific rules and only 14 lines to work with. In addition, sonnets usually deal with a narrow set of topics, such as love, the progression of time, and death. So, with all these limitations, how is a writer supposed to do something new with a sonnet?

The answer is figurative language, the use of words in creative ways that go beyond the literal meaning. When you say 'I'm hungry,' you're being literal, but when you say 'I'm so hungry I could eat a horse,' you're using figurative language (unless you're planning to actually eat a horse). Figurative language is the lifeblood of poetry - and especially of sonnets. Working with the limitations of the sonnet, writers like Shakespeare use figurative language to come up with new ways to talk about old themes, like love and death, that can be beautiful and profound.

Like most Shakespearean sonnets, 'Sonnet 116' has three sections: two quatrains of four lines each followed by a sestet of six lines. The easiest way to work through a sonnet is to go section by section.

First Quatrain

' 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:'

In this first quatrain, Shakespeare uses symbolism in the famous phrase 'marriage of true minds.' Symbolism is the use of one object to stand in for a larger idea or concept. Here, Shakespeare uses the common symbolism of 'mind' to not only refer to the physical brain but to represent a person's intellect and character. Using this symbol, he establishes the ideal marriage as one of two 'true minds' and then says that love should not change if it is between two individuals who are being honest and open with one another.

Second Quatrain

'O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.'

Developing the ideas from the first quatrain, Shakespeare now uses perhaps the most common type of figurative language: metaphor. A metaphor compares two things, usually to highlight a quality in one or both of them. In this quatrain, Shakespeare uses two metaphors to highlight how love should be unchanging.

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